Our military: Unheralded improvers of society

Alex Beehler Contributor
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In a previous post, in recognition of National Military Month, it was discussed how our military had improved as first defenders of America’s freedoms. This post focuses on how the military, while assuring our national security, has also in unheralded fashion improved civilian society, enhancing daily lives of people and their surroundings, in health and conservation, both here and around the world.

After World War II it became apparent that American troops would be stationed throughout the globe, including tropical climes, for extended periods of time. The Army, in particular, recognized the significant toll that tropical diseases inflicted on uninnoculated American soldiers, sailors, and fliers in the Pacific Theater. As a result, the military, led by the Army, engaged a long-term research effort to develop as many vaccines for infectious diseases as possible. Fifty years later, the fruits of such efforts are shared by all —over 50 percent of the vaccines in common use in the U.S. and throughout the world have been developed by the Army’s medical research. Moreover, the military has established the Integrated (Services) Pest Management Board, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, which includes medical research experts from all three services. The Board has also established best online library for insect-borne diseases, available free of charge to the public 24/7. Most users are civilians outside North America.

After the December 2004 tsunami, in which the U.S. Navy played a leading role in emergency response activities in Southeast Asia, the Navy became more aware of the international goodwill it created by such humanitarian efforts. Rather than wait for disaster to strike, the Navy since 2005 has launched extended annual tours of duty for the USNS Mercy as part of its ongoing Pacific Partnership mission. According to a May 21, 2010, media account from the American Forces Press Service, for five months, the Mercy will provided assistance ashore including engineering projects, medical and dental care, participating in subject-matter-expert changes, and conducting programs to provide humanitarian and civic assistance to Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Palau and Papua New Guinea. Mercy’s commodore, Capt. Lisa Franchetti, commented that there are eight partner nations, six host nations, and 17 NGOs that will send a total of over 700 volunteers.

The Navy sponsored a similar medical goodwill hospital ship several years ago to Central and South America (and more recently in response to this winter’s Haitian earthquake), where tens of thousands of local inhabitants received free, needed medical care.

As for conservation, the 30 million acres of military lands in the U.S. because of their secure status have the greatest concentration of endangered and threatened species, some 350 varieties, of any federal land managing agency. Next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the military services spend more on actual conservation, approximately a half billion dollars annually, than any other federal land manager. Because of the protected borders of installations of endangered species, the military has been responsible for the delisting (revitalization) of six such species, most prominently and symbolically that of the American Bald Eagle. For instance, the Army’s Aberdeen, Maryland Proving Grounds facility has become the top eagle nesting area in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and FT Riley, Kansas is home to the most prominent eagle winter rookery in North America.

In addition, the Air Force and DoD’s extensive studies of migratory birds have benefited countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, while the Navy is the largest and principal funder of marine mammal research in the world.

The American public, let alone worldwide perception, have little idea the positive force our military has been in improving our daily lives, particularly outside high technological advancements. Why such a secret? First, because media attention quite appropriately concentrates on the battles at hand and related front line activity; the military follows suite. Second, the military is legally restricted from spending public funding on public relations, other than for recruiting; only post-Tsunami 2004 have the services led by the Navy began touting their humanitarian efforts as a recruitment toll. Third, as a direct result of points one and two above, many senior Pentagon officials were unaware of the services’ successes in these noncombat areas and thus never discuss such matters with Capitol Hill policymakers and media pundits.

All the more reason to take stock during National Military Month to appreciate our military this May, and every other month of the year.

Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.